02/07/06 8:00 AM ET
Negro Leagues' Byrd was in control
Right-hander one of the last to legally throw spitball
By Robert Falkoff / MLB.com
Byrd was one of the last pitchers to legally throw a spitball and could make that pitch do some wicked tricks. But Negro Leagues historian James Riley said the real genius of Byrd was getting the hitters obsessed with the spitter and then throwing something else to get outs.
"His best pitch was really the fake spitter," Riley said.
Byrd played a mind game with the hitters, where the threat of the spitter became more beneficial than the spitter itself. Byrd also threw a slider, fastball, curve, sinker and two variations of the knuckler.
According to BaseballLibrary.com, it is known that Byrd completed 56 of 85 league games between 1933-37 and 1944-47. His best documented year was 1945 when he was 10-6 with 79 strikeouts and one complete game.
Byrd pitched for the Columbus Turfs, Columbus Blue Birds, Cleveland Red Sox, Columbus Elite Giants, Washington Elite Giants, Nashville Elite Giants and Baltimore Elite Giants. His five East-West All-Star appearances are exceeded only by Hall of Famers Leon Day and Hilton Smith.
While with Baltimore, Byrd gained the nickname "Daddy" from catcher Roy Campanella. It was said that Campanella had a hard time handling Byrd's spitter for awhile, but eventually got the hang of it.
Riley believes Byrd has Hall of Fame credentials.
"In my opinion, he's just good enough to be in," Riley said. "He was sort of like Burleigh Grimes (the last to legally throw a spitter in the Major Leagues) in the Negro Leagues."
Byrd pitched winter ball with Caguas in Puerto Rico in 1940-41 and led that league in wins with 15.
"He was a gentleman, but very competitive," Riley said.
When Byrd did come with the spitter, he had a knack for controlling it despite the great movement on the pitch. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Byrd also had the velocity to keep hitters loose in the box.
Once, while pitching a July 4 game against the Newark Eagles at Yankee Stadium, Byrd beaned Eagles manager Willie Wells. After being carried from the field, Wells recovered. But the incident prompted him to design a batting helmet, which was similar to a construction worker's hardhat.
The hitters needed both hardhats and thinking caps when they stepped up against Byrd.
Spitter or no spitter, Byrd usually came out on top.
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.